CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — America took her first steps into space in May 1961, led by a naval aviator beginning a new voyage of exploration upon the ocean of space.
On the heels of Russia’s successful launch of the first human into Earth orbit, NASA sped up work to launch the United States first astronaut.
Strapped inside the cone-shaped Mercury spacecraft atop the Redstone rocket was Alan B. Shepard, Jr. A naval aviator since 1947, Shepard had been selected to ride the rocket first five moths prior to launch.
Roger, liftoff and the clock has started!
At 9:34 a.m. EDT on May 5, 1961, Shepard rocketed from Launch Complex 5 at Cape Canaveral aboard the Mercury spacecraft Freedom 7. The candlestick rocket soared into the blue skies powered by 78,000 pounds of thrust.
“Roger, liftoff and the clock has started,” Shepard radioed Mercury Control at the Cape.
His Redstone rocket separated 144 seconds after lift-off, and immediately Shepard began to pilot the Mercury spaceship. He fired the thruster jets on all axes which allowed the commander to change the ship’s attitude.
To view the Earth below, America’s first astronaut used a periscope which was deployed after booster separation. No other American had flown as high.
“On the periscope, what a beautiful view,” Shepard radioed to the controllers at the Cape. “Cloud cover over Florida, 3 to 4 tenths near the eastern coast. Obscured up to (Cape) Hatteras.”
Five minutes into the flight, Freedom 7 reached its apogee of 116.5 miles altitude. Ten seconds later, three retro rockets fired on schedule to orientate the craft for its brief reentry.
Suddenly, like a cannonball, his small craft came back down toward the Atlantic Ocean. Freedom 7 splashed down 303 statue miles east of the Cape 15 minutes, 22 seconds after leaving Cape Canaveral.
Shepard’s successful flight is outlined in an official NASA document first published in 1961.
Shepard would walk on the moon during Apollo 14 in February 1971, before retiring from NASA and the Navy in 1974. He had logged nine days of spaceflight.
Our Conversation with Alan Shepard
During an exclusive interview with Alan Shepard in 1995, I asked him how the space program of today differs from what he experienced during the 1960s and into the 1970s? His words from 25 years ago remain true today as we turn the corner with flights to the moon.
Alan Shepard: “I think as far as NASA’s concerned, yes. The difference as far as the general public’s concerned is that the pure excitement of the early days is gone because, “so we’ve done that. What do we do tomorrow?”, kind of routine. The fact that the public in general is excited about exploration made the lunar missions a very well recognized, well appreciated phase.”
“The folks that are flying today are just as dedicated as we were even knowing ahead of time that they are not going to receive the same kind of appreciation and recognition that those of us did in the early days.”
Charles A Atkeison: Do you consider yourself the Christopher Columbus of the modern age?
Alan: “I really don’t. I consider myself very fortunate to have been allowed to make a couple of space flights for the United States. I recognize a few of us get a lot of attention, but literally hundreds of our close associates are the ones that did all the work.”
“I remember saying in May of 1961 at the White House, when I received a medal from President Kennedy acknowledging that these hundreds, yes thousands of dedicated individuals on the ground are the ones to whom the accolades of the day should go. And I still feel that very strongly.”
Charles: I remember the scene, Kennedy drops your medal during the presentation. What went through your head right then?
Alan: “Well, we almost banged heads ’cause both of us (Shepard laughs) … it was kind of cute. ‘Cause Jack said, “Here”, and Jackie (Kennedy) said, ‘No. No, Jack, pin it on.’ So then he recovered and pinned it on. So we had a lot of fun with that.”
Charles: Do you consider both of your flights equal, as the first American in space and going to the moon?
Alan: “The only thing that is common to those two flights as I’m concerned was a certain round of personal pride and satisfaction. Not only to have been chosen to make these two missions, but also to be able to relatively, ah, expertly complete both of them.”
One year earlier, Shepard co-authored the book Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Race to the Moon. The best selling book later became a made-for-TV mini-series.
Today, at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex, guests are greeted by a towering bronze statue of America’s first astronaut. It serves as a reminder for future generations of a man who did so much to propel this country into the final frontier.
(Charles A. Atkeison reports on aerospace and technology. Follow his updates via social media @Military_Flight.)